In Headmaster Burke's 34th and final Opening Remarks during the first Corporate Chapel of the year, he introduced this year's theme: LOVE.
Good morning. It feels so good to be back here with you just 72 hours after we welcomed and heard from our new friend, Jim Nantz.
Let us take a moment to remember, to honor, and to pray for our brothers and sisters who were murdered, injured, or bereaved 22 years ago today on September 11, 2001, when our nation was attacked. May the deceased rest in heaven and may all the afflicted be comforted by our Lord’s peace, the peace that surpasses all human understanding.
When we gathered here in this Church on that most painful day, I offered these words from Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” As Jim Nantz shared: Goodness wins. May we forever keep our hearts and minds and souls wide open to God’s grace, may we forever strive to decide for, to exude, and to inspire His goodness, and may we forever seek to uplift every person we meet and every place we grace by loving God, working hard, and taking good care of one another.
I am so happy about the manner in which we embraced and advanced last year’s theme of WISDOM. I choose to begin this year of LOVE with a momentary return to 2005, the year in which we focused our attention on another four-letter word: OPEN. I remember explaining to our community then that I had selected OPEN because it was the word I overheard myself using when trying to help a person struggling with his or her faith life. I found myself saying: “Just be open to the possibility that there is a God who loves you more than you can love.”
Who among us doesn’t want to be an open-minded, open-hearted person?
Around 53 AD St. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, the most well-known chapter of which is 13; it’s the one we frequently hear at weddings. So, as the talk show hosts are wont to say, take a listen:
If I speak in tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I am nothing.
St. Paul makes love seem like the most important thing in the universe. And you know why he does that? Because it is!
St. Paul continues by explaining what love is and what love is not: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Wow! Just imagine if one of your teachers were to write the following words about you in a letter of recommendation to colleges: This St. Sebastian’s gentleman scholar is a person of true love. He is patient and kind. He’s not jealous or arrogant. He doesn’t chirp his peers. He’s not self-centered. I’ve never seen him angry. He forgives readily. He’s all about the truth. He protects others. You can trust him with anything. He’s got a tremendously positive attitude; and, no matter how tough the going gets, he never quits. Your teachers will indeed write such words if you earn them by the manner in which you live your lives. It’s a guarantee. And we know that you all want to be part of something great. You all want to be as wise, as just, as balanced, and as brave as you can be. You all want to fall ever more deeply in love with learning. You may not yet know all of these things about yourself, but we do, and we’re going to help you get there. We’re on your side, and we will be forever.
I offer these excerpts from the last section of St. Paul’s letter: Love never fails…And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Love never fails? Ever? Is there anything in this world that never, ever fails? Trust scripture. Trust God. Whether in doubt or in full confidence, go forth with love in your heart. God is love. Love never fails. Be not afraid.
And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. FAITH was our theme in 2020. HOPE was our theme in 2001. Several years ago, I decided that LOVE would be our theme in my final year of service as your Headmaster.
Why is love the greatest of the three theological virtues?
Ralph Waldo Emerson, our 19th century eminent Massachusetts brother, provides an answer in his essay titled Love: Love is omnipresent in nature as motive and reward. Love is our highest word and the synonym of God.
Omnipresent: always and everywhere. Love is here in us and among us right now. Omnipresent. Motive: our reason for doing something; that which stirs us to action. Reward: the good things we receive and offer from our right ordered actions, our responses to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. A God-centered, student-centered School, we exist for the glory of God and for our students and their families. The rest of us are here to serve. And the rewards we all seek and devoutly desire are happy, healthy, holy lives of love and service in the world and eternal joy in the next.
Love is our highest word and the synonym of God.
Love appears in our Mission Statement:
A Catholic independent School, St. Sebastian’s seeks to engage young men in the pursuit of truth through faith and reason.
By embracing gospel values in an inclusive, nurturing community and by inspiring intellectual excellence in a structured liberal arts curriculum, St. Sebastian’s strives to empower students for success in college and in life.
The ideal St. Sebastian’s graduate with be a moral and just person, a gentleman of courage, honor, and wisdom, a life-long learner who continues to grow in his capacity to know, to love, and to serve God and neighbor.
Love is the first word of our order of the day.
Love God, work hard, and take good care of one another.
Love is something we promise you and your parents at our Admissions Open House program, when we proclaim that our students will be: Known and loved and called to greatness by great people. And, believe me, my beloved colleagues on our faculty and staff are truly great people. And so are your parents and so are our trustees.
Trustees are intelligent, talented, energetic, deep-thinking, deep-feeling, kind and giving, truly great people of faith and honor who govern our School so magnificently well. Their major duties include hiring and supporting the headmaster, overseeing strategic planning, and assuming ultimate financial responsibility for our School.
We have with us this morning our outstanding Board of Trustees President, Mr. Jim Elcock ’77 P’08, and our newest trustees, who are engaged in their orientation program. Let us welcome them by standing to express our gratitude to them.
Love is a noun and a verb. Dictionary definitions include:
An intense feeling of deep affection, attraction, warm attachment, passion, enthusiasm, devotion – and I really love this one: an unselfish and benevolent concern for the good of another.
Cherish, treasure, hold dear, caress, appreciate, thrive.
Sacred scripture is replete with Love.
God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. (1 John 4:15)
Love one another. (Romans 13:8)
Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. For his love endures forever. (Psalm 118)
The love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)
No wonder we so often associate love with the heart.
A few hundred years after St. Paul wrote those words to the Romans, St. Augustine asserted:
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
Judeo-Christian teachings and traditions proclaim that we humans are made in the image and likeness of God who is love, so what’s the problem? If we’re made by love for love, why are people often so cruel to one another? Why is there conflict? Why are there wars?
The answer is that for love to be love it needs to be freely chosen. The good news is that God has gifted us with the freedom to choose. The bad news is that we don’t always choose love. God loved us into the world and wants us to love Him and to love one another. But the choice is ours. We have to choose to let God in, to let His grace fill us.
C.S. Lewis says it best here: Free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.
Free to love. We’re all free to love. We have free access to the two most powerful forces in the universe: God and people of good will through whom our Lord works. And if we choose, we get to be part of that second force.
You were called to be free, but do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in one single command: love your neighbor as yourself. (Galatians 5:13,14)
As human beings, we’re subject and prone to error. We make mistakes. We’re all sinners. What do we do when we fail to act as we know we should? What do we do when we hurt someone?
Let me tell you a story. Last year, my wonderful colleague, Mr. Stefan Cressotti, gifted me with this book written by the man who baptized him. Its titled Tales of a Magic Monastery by Theophane the Monk.
I’m going to read an entire chapter, and you better pay attention because it comes and goes fast, as it’s less than 40 words long. The chapter’s title is: The Audacity of Humility.
I walked up to an old, old monk and asked him, “What is the audacity of humility?” This man had never met me before, but do you know what his answer was? “To be the first to say ‘I love you.’”
Audacity: willingness to take bold risks, daring, fearlessness.
Humility: modesty, meekness, grounded, not proud, not arrogant, poor in spirit. To be poor in spirit, by the way, is a truly good thing, for to be poor in spirit is to be totally dependent on God, to embrace the truth that every good thing we have is a gift from God, so we should never brag about anything we achieve in the classroom, in the arts, in athletics, in our social lives. If we’ve been gifted with ability, we’re supposed to develop it and share it with the world. What, then, could we possibly brag about?
Audacity and humility, boldness and meekness sure don’t seem to go together.
Now let me tell you another story which takes us back almost twenty years. I was walking home from my office one evening, when I encountered one of our teams disembarking the bus that had taken them to and from their game at another school.
I asked the coach how the game had gone. The score was close but we had lost. He added that we had lost in more ways than one. The opposing coach had told him that according to his players, two of our guys had said some things that shouldn’t have been said. We agreed that we would bring the matter to the Dean of Students in the morning.
Our boys met with the Dean right away the next day and were honest about their offenses. I called the other school’s headmaster, apologized and informed him that the two boys, their coach, and I would be coming to his school after classes to address the team with whom we had competed the day before.
In those days, I drove a big black, imposing, Secret Service-like Suburban. Our coach rode shotgun and the two boys sat in the back. As we pulled off campus, I told them how important it was to get the words right and I explained that that if they used the words “if” or “but” their apologies wouldn’t be real apologies.
The headmaster greeted us and escorted us to the practice site. The players took a knee. Their headmaster spoke, their coach spoke, our coach spoke, and then our two boys spoke. As you know, I listen to a lot of student speeches, and I must tell you that the words our two guys spoke that morning were as good as it gets. Honest, humble, truly contrite words from pure, pure hearts. I was and am so very proud of them. For from the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34)
And then it was my turn: I looked upon the team of boys still taking a knee, indicated our two Arrows, then turned back to the team and said: “I love those two guys. I hate what they did, but I love them.” And, standing above and looking upon our opponents, I said: “And I love all of you. I don’t know you, but I love you, as we’re called to love one another, and no one ever, ever has a right to make another feel less than. As Headmaster, I take full responsibility, so you need to hear from me: I am so terribly sorry.” Handshakes all around.
As we started to pull off campus, one of the boys in the back seat said, “Mr. Burke, I feel so good. I feel like I just went to confession.” I smiled and told them that they would be sitting out the next game and that then this ordeal would be over.
That night I received a call from the other school’s long-serving Dean of Students who told me that he didn’t think anything better had ever happened between his school and another school than what had happened on that day.
The next year, our team in that sport won the ISL sportsmanship award voted on by the coaches in the league.
It’s all a gift, you know. Everything we have is a gift from God. Years ago, I prayed, through the intercession of St. Jude, that the Lord would put me in a place where I could best serve Him and my family, and he brought us here in 1990 to be with you, and there’s no place, I’d rather be.
The audacity of humility. Bold but grounded. I so often pray as I have this very day: Please, Jesus, be in my heart and on my lips. How otherwise could I have told those boys I didn’t know that I loved them and really mean it?
It’s all a gift. And each of you is a gift. And I love you all. In this year of love, may we strive in earnest to live in love and when we and others fail, may we seek and offer forgiveness, embracing the message of French priest, Jacques Philippe: Forgiveness is the victory of love over evil…only an excess of love will save the world.
And I close with St. John of the Cross:
In the twilight of our lives all that will matter is how we have loved.